Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why Elaine Chao, Wife of Mitch McConnell, Could Help Sink his Re-election Bid 1/3

by Nomad

In this three-part post, we take a closer look at the career of Elaine Chao, wife of Senator Mitch McConnell. She is one-half of the Washington power couple.

No Trophy Wife

In the last few weeks, the wife of Mitch McConnell, Ms. Elaine Chao, has jumped feet first into the campaign. 
Strategists probably thought what McConnell's flagging re-election bid really needed was a pretty face. Clearly, the public is fed up with looking at Mitch's sour mug.  

However, Ms. Elaine Chao is by no means a trophy wife. Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Chao was the Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush presidency from 2001 to 2009. 
In that regard, it was perhaps a risky decision to have her make an appearance. 
Cleverly the GOP strategists have thrown a smokescreen over any real discussion of Elaine Chao. Here's how they did it.  In the last few days, the Republicans have attempted to turn the tables on the left by claiming that a left-winger made a rather stupid tweet about the fact that Choa is an Asian and was not born in Kentucky.  The GOP quickly seized this opportunity to charge "racism" -which given the source is perhaps ironic.

To be sure, Ms. Chao has never attempted to hide her background. On the other hand, it's also hard to tell the Elaine Chao story without at least noting her ethnic background. That in itself is not racism. After all, Republicans have used every opportunity to use Ms. Chao's Asian background when it benefited them.  

How Ms. Chao got to where she is today is indeed a fascinating story. A suspect charge of racism shouldn't prevent a careful look at her history and her career.

Chao's Bootstraps

Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is all the rage for conservatives but wise researchers should take all that malarky with a grain of salt. The Christian Science Monitor profiled Chao telling its readers how she "began her life in this country with nothing."
It really depends on how one describes nothing. As any investor will tell you, nothing is something if you have what they call "access. " Being in the right place with a set of diverse and powerful connections in high places is often worth more than gold in pocket.

According to the Heritage Foundation, her family came to this country with ”little more than the clothes on their backs." That's practically an Asian-American stereotype. However, there is no one template for all Asian immigrant families just as there is no template for Hispanic immigrant families. 
Suffice to say, however, little Elaine was not a Vietnamese refugee. 

By the way, I actually heard a comment about how Chao came to the US as an indigent waif "in the hold of a ship." Given her father's career in shipping and trade, that nonsense comes across as something close to a stale joke.

According to the official story, Chao, her mother, and two younger sisters came to the U.S. aboard a freight ship in 1961, when she was eight years old. She wasn't locked below deck and given stale bread and teaspoons of water to drink. Her father had come to New York some three years prior and according to the legend, it took him three years to save enough money to pay for his family's passage from Taiwan and the visas.

There's no evidence to show this isn't true. Whether it is the full truth is another question.

Her Father's Kind of Access

The book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, by Laura Flanders, attempts to shed a little light on the rise of the Chao family. If you want to succeed in China (or in the US) what you need- above anything else- is the right connections. By virtue of birth, Chao had that and had it in bushel baskets.
Her father, James, was fortunate to have attended one of China's finest universities. It is sort of like the Princeton or Harvard of China. It was of course, entirely socialized in Red China.

On top of that, he happened to "fall in" with one of the Shanghai-born family dynasties, the Tungs. (The family is still powerful in Chinese politics and business today.) 

James Chao got his start at one of the many Tung trading companies at a critical time in Chinese history. If that alone wasn't a recipe for success, then his marriage into another powerful family, the Hsus, practically guaranteed it. His wife’s family would later operate a shipping empire in Hong Kong.
(Could this connection better explain the freight ship arrival to the US?)

It has to be remembered that the Chao family's arrival to the US is set against the backdrop of the opening of Chinese trade to the outside world. 
James Chao came to the United States in 1958, an assistant in one of the Tungs’ merchant-shipping outfits. At a time when immigration to the US by Chinese from anywhere in the world was strictly limited to 102 people a year...
And yet...
James Chao was somehow able to navigate the system and, within three years, send for his wife and daughters. In 1964, James Chao founded his own shipping company, called Foremost, to carry goods between the US and Taiwan.
For a trader, things could hardly have been more promising. There were unprecedented opportunities to exploit. By the end of the 1960s, trade with Taiwan emerged like smiling peach blossoms in the spring wind. 

But it was to shortly improve beyond all measure. After years of isolation, the US and China full diplomatic relations were established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. The value of US trade with China grew, from some $95 million in 1972 to $120 billion in 2002, and the vast majority of all imports came by sea.
... the most ambitious men in Washington had their sights set on opening up US relations with mainland China, and Chao, with his personal and professional connections already established, was in a perfect place to take advantage.
The rise of the Chao family, therefore, corresponded perfectly with the rise of  US  trade with China. From city to suburb, a series of larger homes in better neighborhoods. From Queens, they moved to Syosset, Long Island, and from there to Harrison, in New York’s affluent Westchester County. 

The bootstrap saga promoted by Elaine Chao has always been somewhat undercut by those pesky details. The story of how the family all pitched in together is prefaced with "although we could afford painters." And another memory of another family togetherness project was the construction of a "circular driveway" - not exactly anybody's image of abject poverty or even middle-class. 
What it says is "top-drawer, really.. top-drawer."

Flanders also reports that contrary to the image that the conservatives painted of Chao, her story was not all the typical Asian daughter's story. Unlike many young Chinese immigrants, Chao had to beg her father to take a job after high school. We are talking a summer job here. As Flanders points out, "there were no long hours toiling in the family business."

Chao apparently endured none of the traditional restrictions that limits the lives of many Asian women. She was fabulously lucky that "her family's embrace of tradition did not extend to that patriarchal part of some Chinese culture that discourages a daughter from seeking anything but marriage and motherhood."

For example, she was permitted to put off marriage- and having children- for decades and she was allowed to leave home to attend one of America's very best schools- Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, known for nurturing feminism at its roots. In that way, Chao was extraordinarily fortunate. 
 In 1975, she obtained her B.A. in Economics from Holyoke in 1975, followed later by her MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1979.

Smooth Sailing in the Business World

A cursory glance at Elaine Chao's resume would impress most people. 

After university, her formal biography momentarily goes blank. (At least Wikipedia and a few other sources fall silent.) 
In fact, in the early years of her career, Ms. Chao worked for a time at Gulf Oil Corporation and at Citicorp, a massive international investment bank. There's not much information to be found. As her biography notes: 
Her area of expertise was shipping, her father’s business. At Citicorp she became a loan specialist, working in the ship-financing department in New York City.
But Chao was eager to enter into government service so at about that time, she applied for and was granted a White House Fellowship during the Reagan era. Three years later, in 1986 she was chosen as the Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Transportation
The Maritime Administration has many critical responsibilities to the national defense, including the operation of the US Merchant Marines. It also determines the shipping routes to develop and maintain American foreign commerce and the requirements of ships necessary to provide adequate service on such routes.

Like her previous private sector jobs, it is clear that Chao was more than willing to use her father's background in Chinese trade and shipping as her personal qualification for any position.
From 1988 to 1989, she served as Chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Then, in 1989, President George Bush, Sr. nominated Chao to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation.

One last look at Ms. Chao's father. 
What was he doing around this time, besides applauding his first-born daughter's rise?
According to her biographer,

Chao’s family’s interests were directly tied to US relations (and trade) with China. In 1988, making a bet on the likely turn of the tide, James Chao moved his business from nationalist Taiwan to Hong Kong (which was due to revert from British hands to Chinese, in 1997). He renewed his ties with Beijing and his college chum, Jiang Zemin.

Zemin's name sound familiar to you? He became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China- the El Supremo- from 1989 to 2002. Zemin would go on to launch economic reforms, introducing a new era of "socialist market economy," a government-regulated capitalist market economy.

For a capitalist, it's hard to imagine anything any more "ground-floor" than that. 
According to research by John Judis of the New Republic, Chao contracted to build two ships with China’s state-owned shipyard in Shanghai in these years, when Zemin was party secretary of Shanghai. After Zemin became the Chinese head of state, James Chao began visiting Beijing regularly - meeting with Zemin and the head of China Shipbuilding in August 1989, just three months after Tiananmen Square. In Sino­-US relations, the Chaos straddled a critical world divide: father James took tea with the powerful in Beijing, and daughter Elaine went out for coffee with their Washington counterparts.
Now it perhaps becomes a little clearer why it was necessary for the McConnell campaign strategists to use the race smokescreen. Clearly, it was an effort to silence all discussion of Chao's Asian roots. 

Peace Corp and American Way

As smooth as her rise seems now, her career path was not without its detours. President George H.W. Bush named 150 Asians to positions in his administration and reportedly much against Chao's liking, she became the director of the Peace Corp, a post she held for only a year. 

In that time, Chao expanded Peace Corp operations into the former Soviet empire, by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union

However, there were questions about what Chao- as a product of the conservative ideology- was trying to achieve in her post. As one author noted:
The Corps offered American MBAs free language training, housing, healthcare and a stipend to spend two years either teaching or "developing small business: in the For Soveir republics.

US taxpayers, in effect, paid for a hordes of bankers, stockbrokers and experts in advertising, marketing and finance to get their foot in the door in the post-communist states.
That's not exactly what Kennedy had in mind when he envisioned the Peace Corps, I can bet. Instead of sending doctors, nurses, engineers or teachers, the Peace Corps under the New Right was sending in the first wave of capitalists exploiters to seize the opportunities presented to the West by the fall of communism.

During the Clinton years, Chao left government service and worked for four years as the President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America. Prior to Chao's term, this had been an organization that was scandalized by financial mismanagement. 
The former president William Aramony had held the post at the largest charity in the United States for over 20 years but ended his long career in disgrace (and prison) with charges not only of financial wrongdoing but sexual misconduct as well. 

By all accounts, Chao restored some degree of sanity to an organization that had lost its way. Unfortunately, her contribution was not lasting one and following her tenure, the management problems began again.

It was around this time- or earlier- that Chao attracted the attention of the Heritage Foundation, whose help to the overly-ambitious Republican conservatives is vital. It is an organization responsible for indoctrinating scores of conservatives. Of the powerful organization,  The Wall Street Journal once stated that "No policy shop has more clout than the conservative Heritage Foundation."
It is hard to overstate the impact The Heritage Foundation has had on the direction of U.S. policy since the late 1970s" declared The Democratic Policy Committee Annual Report.

It would also be no exaggeration to say that without the good people at the Heritage, there would be no New Far Right in America. For an up and comer like Chao, becoming a fellow at the Heritage Foundation opened doors in the halls of power.
There was only one thing missing.

Power Couple

Chao decided that her hard work and her father's connections would take her only so far. What a woman- especially an ambitious woman in  Republican circles- really needs is a powerful conservative politician for a husband.

After some careful thought and selective dating, on 6 February 1993, she married a political player, Senator Mitch McConnell.

McConnell's first marriage to Sherrill Redmon from 1968 until 1980 had produced three daughters Elly, Porter, and Claire. Following the divorce, Redmon went on to become a feminist scholar and to collaborate with Gloria Steinem.

Although the beautiful Elaine calls rather homely-looking Mitch "the love of her life" it would be extraordinarily innocent to assume that love is the only thing that binds this Washington power-couple. And when George W. Bush became president, Ms, Chao was more than happy to test the advantage such a marriage of this sort could offer. 

This then brings up to her crowning achievement- so far- as the head of the Department of Labor. She was the first Asian Pacific American woman and first Chinese American to be appointed to a President's cabinet in American history. (Is that a racist remark or a positive affirmation of the American dream?)

For better or worse she would end up being the only cabinet member to serve under George W. Bush for his entire administration.
*   *   *   *
In part two of this three-part series, we will take a peek into how Ms. Elaine Chao managed her department, exactly according to the Heritage Foundation conservative agenda. 

To go directly to  Part Two